Some weeks I can hardly bear to read or listen to the news. This was one of those weeks: the murder trial in Lafayette County; the report of three women held captive for a decade in Cleveland; more than 1,000 deadin the collapsed building in Bangladesh, the on-going killing in Syria. The amount of pain and suffering in the world seems too much to bear sometimes. I wonder how the suffering is ever going to stop.
When I was a child a Sunday School image from the book of Revelation used to console me. I would imagine “the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” I understood that was one of God’s promises. I knew when that new Jerusalem came down out of heaven, God would fix everything. I used to pray for God to fix things, but it seemed God rarely did.
I still love the poetry of that verse from Revelation. But I no longer take it literally, just as I no longer take literally the imagery of Jesus lifting off from earth through the clouds to return to heaven at the Ascension.
So I’m left with the question of how this world of ours so full of evil is ever going to get “fixed”, if that is even the right word to use. And where did Jesus go after he left the disciples standing there looking up to heaven that day long ago? What can the Ascension of Jesus mean for us today in a world where we no longer think of heaven as up in the sky?
Ronald Cole-Turner, a professor at Pittsburg Seminary, offers a helpful suggestion in his commentary on the passage from Acts. He notes that the resurrection and ascension or exaltation belong together as “one sweeping forty-day movement….It is not the force of gravity that must be overcome, but the forces of sin, death, hell, and annihilation.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 500)
Now that makes sense to me in the face of suffering. Jesus shows us that the forces of sin and death can’t ultimately keep us from life. Jesus, who came from the heart of God, became incarnate, endured suffering and death and was raised in glory back to the heart of God. We might say he dies into the presence of God. It is a mystery, his resurrection and ascension show us that Jesus is never outside the presence of God and neither are we. Death is a transformation to a new form of life that happens to all of us.
In 1999, my father died unexpectedly, and my mother felt a huge loss at his death. A few months after he died, however, my mother, who is a person of faith, said to me: “You know, I miss your father terribly. But since his death, I know I am never alone.” I marvel at that. I’ve heard other people say the same thing. I think the sense of presence people have after the death of a loved one is an expression of the mystery of the resurrection and ascension. We can’t really explain it, but we know we are never alone. We sense God’s enduring presence with us and, in some way that we can’t fully grasp, we know the continuing presence of our loved ones in some new way as well.
So, rather than standing around looking to heaven for God to fix things, we are moved to become part of the fix. God chooses to work with and through us to transform the world. Gabby Giffords, shot in the head, has founded an anti-gun violence group. The father of one of the boys killed in Newtown, CT, is speaking out for stricter gun control laws. Mothers of children killed by drunk drivers work to stop drunk driving and support the victims of such accidents.
Just as God doesn’t drop the new Jerusalem from the clouds overhead, neither can we bring the reign of God into being through our own power. Jesus tells the disciples to stay together and wait until they receive the power of the Spirit which will enable them to witness to him.
We who are also disciples have been baptized with the Holy Spirit. It is that Spirit that enables us to hold on to hope in the face of suffering and violence. It must have been the Spirit living in those young women in Cleveland that enabled them to endure their gruesome captivity for ten years without giving up hope until the day when one of them discovered a way to escape. It must have been the Spirit deep in Nelson Mandela’s heart that enabled him to come out of 25 years of imprisonment filled with wisdom and compassion rather than bitterness.
We can cite countless examples of people of faith who have endured suffering and continued to hope and love, who have worked for justice against great odds, who have found Christ in the world in the poor and the powerless. Christ does not disappear from the world at the Ascension. Instead, he can be found everywhere through his Spirit in faith-filled people. The good news is we have reason to hope. Christ has overcome the forces of sin, death and destruction. Life prevails in spite of the evil we experience.
As we prepare to celebrate the gift of the Spirit next Sunday, let us remember this week the ways we have experienced the power of the Spirit in our lives giving us hope in the darkness and strength to work for justice, healing and peace in our world.